25 May 2006
DONIZETTI: Roberto Devereux
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When asked whether he believed Rossini had composed Il Barbiere di Siviglia in thirteen days, nineteen-year-old Donizetti is supposed to have replied,
“Why not? He is so lazy!” 1
This comment is tinged with irony, coming from someone who would, in time, suffer the same reputation as the elder Maestro from Pesaro: a composer whose music came to him with too much facility, whose music was devoid of real emotion, and one who would rather plagiarize his own works than to come up with new musical ideas.
As with Rossini, opera fans could argue Donizetti's case either way, but in the end it is the undeniable beauty of his music, his ability to create engaging melodies and his acute understanding of the human voice, that speak to Donizetti’s real talent. Ultimately, this is what really matters and only the most stubborn listener would refuse to enjoy this composer’s music.
Donizetti was a master of his craft and he knew how far to push the musical and political envelopes with each new opera, and he knew how to bend the standards to fit his particular needs and those of the singers for whom he wrote the music. His libretti were written, at times manipulated, in order to ascribe qualities and situations to Protestant and non-Christian characters that the strict and narrow minded Italian and Austrian censors would never permit Catholic or their Royal personages. In the case of Devereux, Donizetti, not inclined to involve himself in political turmoil, used the rigid and tyrannical English Queen to paraphrase the social and political situation in his homeland. Musically, Donizetti understood the human instrument better than most composers, and he wrote elegant, sublime, and compassionate passages for all the voices, he had a unique appreciation of the dramatic musical situation, and he was as talented composing in the comic as in the dramatic genre: Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) remains the undisputed bel canto opera of the Ottocento, and his romantic comedy, L’Elisir d’amor has been a perennial favorite.
At the time of his death in 1848 one in four operas performed in Italy bore Donizetti’s name on the tittle page. In sad contrast, by the end of the century most of his oeuvre had been largely forgotten,2 and would remain in oblivion until the second half of the Twentieth Century. In 1964, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples revived Roberto Devereux3 for Turkish soprano, Leyla Gencer,4 leading to the most exciting revival period, to date, of neglected operas.5 The role of Elisabetta was later sung all over Europe by Monserrat Caballé and in the United States, Beverly Sills became a well known interpreter of the frustrated English monarch.
The libretto by Salvatore Cammarano is largely based on a play by Fran&ccdil;ois Ancelot, and Felice Romani’s 1833 libretto for Mercadante.6 Cammarano also used Jacques Lescène Desmaison’s Histoire secrète des amours d’Elisabeth d’Angleterre er du comte d’Essexas inspiration for his libretto.
The plot is simplistic, historically inaccurate and typical of the time: a love triangle involving the Queen, Elisabetta I, who loves Conte di Essex, Roberto Devereux, who is in love with Sara, who is married to Nottingham, who believes his wife is unfaithful with Devereux and takes revenge on the Conte by keeping Sara from delivering a life-saving ring to the Queen. Though it sounds trite, the plot is taut with dramatic situations and formidable music which carries the action to its dramatic end. As with many other Donizetti dramas, Devereux has never achieved the popularity it rightfully deserves.
For the Paris premiere at the Italiens, on December 27, 1838, Donizetti wrote a new overture which included the tune of God Save the Queen, as well as a new romanza for the tenor and a new duet.
This Myto re-issue of the October 2, 1972 La Fenice performance has long been considered by many to be the definitive recording of Roberto Devereux. Though it has been available at one time or another and for many years on different labels, this issue is in excellent sound. Adding to the benefits of improved sound in this recording is Gianni Raimondi who left few commercial recordings and, as with other famous Caballé “live” performances, fans of the Spanish soprano will regret she did not make a studio recording of this opera.
Gianni Raimondi, made his professional debut in 1947, as the Duke in Rigoletto, and quickly became one of of the most popular tenors in Italy. By the mid 50s, Raimondi had conquered La Scala where he went on to sing in productions of La Traviata, Anna Bolena, Mosé in Eggito, Semiramide, and Boheme. In 1963, after his overwhelming success as Rodolfo at La Scala, Herbert von Karajan invited Raimondi to conquer Vienna inLa Boheme, a production which later toured various European capitals. In 1965, Karajan chose Raimondi to repeat the role of Rodolfo in the Karajan/Zeffirelli film version of Puccini’s opera.7
Raimondi was a favorite Edgardo, Faust, Gabrielle Adorno, Arrigo in Verdi’s Vespri Sciciliani, Cavaradosi, Pollione, Rinaldo in Rossini’s Armida, Ferrando, Pinkerton, Arturo in Bellini’s Puritani, as well as Arnold in Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell. New York audiences missed out when the Metropolitan Opera ousted him in favor of a younger newcomer in productions of Boheme and L’Elisir. When the opera company later invited him back, Raimondi declined the invitation, choosing to stay in Europe.
Raimondi’s voice was not large, but as this recording shows his instrument had a warm, beautiful timbre, flawless phrasing, squillo and a brilliant top. Always in control of his instrument, Raimondi was blessed with superb understanding of the lyric line and a natural voice of immense beauty. This performance of Devereux, eighteen years after his professional debut, shows Raimondi in total control of his instrument and he imbues the character of Essex with the youthful naiveté and virility of a younger man so often lacking in more mature singers.
Raimondi’s opening lines are indicative of his ability to convey the character he is portraying: “Il petto mio, pieno di cicatrici...Domata in campo....” is filled with the arrogance of a young man blinded by his desire to wear the crown, wanting to impress the elder woman he has betrayed and immune to the accusations of those who plot against him. Raimondi matches Caballé note for note and emotion for emotion in “Un lampo, un lampo orribile/Nascondi, frena I palpiti...” to the end of the scene. With Wolff he is contrite when Sara begs him to run away and defiant with Elsabetta later in Act II. At the end of Act III scene II, Raimondi is rewarded with spontaneous shouts of “Bravo” and extended applause from every member of the audience. In the aria “Come un spirito angelico” and the cabaletta “Bagnato è il sen di lacrime” Raimondi displays his versatility as he follows the spontaneity of the melodic line straddling his inner emotions. In this, his last scene in the opera, Raimondi boldly demonstrates why he was the most underrated Italian lirico-leggere tenor of his generation.
It is regretful that Gianni Raimondi, like Gene de Reszke, did not like the timbre of his voice and shied away from studio recordings.
American mezzo, Beverly Wolff (1929-August 14, 2005) was well familiar with the role of Sarah; she sang it at the New York City Opera and recorded it in 1969. Born in Atlanta, Wolff started playing the trumpet, later turning to voice at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. As comfortable singing contemporary works by Bernstein, Moore, and Douglas, Wolff also excelled singing Bach, Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Bellini, Rossini, Berlioz, Donizetti, Bizet, Strauss, Brahms, and Bartok. Wolff was a superb Amneris as well as a compassionate Adalgisa for which the Mexican government issued a medal in her honor after a sensational performance in Bellini’s Norma. Wolff started out as a concert singer and participated in the televised premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti in 1952. After she semi-retired to raise a family, Wolff made her operatic stage debut in 1958 at NYCO, repeating the role of Dinah in Bernstein’s one-act farce on upper middle class marriage, Trouble in Tahiti. Later she sang throughout Europe and North America and participated in the World Premieres of Douglas Moore’s Carry Nation and Giancarlo Menotti’s The Most Important Man. Wolff had a commanding sense of interpretation and intuitive drama to augment her magnificent instrument.
After a long and successful career Beverly Wolff retired from the stage and moved to Florida where she became a member of the Faculty of Florida Souther College.
As Sarah, Wolf delivers a solid, though at times laid back performance. Her interpretation is non-threatening, youthful, subservient to the other characters and perfect for the role of the young girl who knows the perils of her position. “All’aflito ” dolce il pianto...” is sung simply and Wolff deliberately does not show off when the opportunities arise. In “Ah! Quest” addiofatale” her voice blends perfectly with Raimondi’s as their singing takes turns in prominence, not competing but to emphasize their mutual grief and love.
As with the role of Sara, Nottingham is a thankless role: neither is there as primary characters but to indirectly further the action and give support to Elisabetta and Devereux. At the same time, Donizetti’s gift for writing equally beautiful music for all characters calls for first rate singers to interpret these two roles as in Act III scene I, where Wolff and Alberti deliver a more than fine performance.
Walter Alberti, though not very well known, was a popular baritone in Europe during the 60s and 70s and is well represented in a number of recordings. He made his debut in Spoleto, Italy, as Di Luna in Verdi’s Trovatore. Alberti appeared at all the major Italian opera centers as well as in Paris, London, Barcelona, Lausanne, Marseille, Bordeaux, Rio de Janeiro, etc., and the summer festivals of Wexford, Bremmen, Glyndebourne, and the Festival dei due Mondi. In the United States, he sang at Carnegie Hall. Alberti teaches voice in Rome at the Academia di Santa Cecilia.
In this performance, Alberti sings with authority and his instrument has a pleasant timbre, but at the beginning of the opera he appears emotionally detached from the character. In “Qui ribelle ognum ti chiama,” the listener gets a glimpse of what Alberti’s instrument can deliver when totally committed to the music and words. Alberti, as Nottingham, holds his own in the exchange with the Queen in Act II, and the subsequent exchange with Elizabetta and Devereux and to the end of the scene.
A few minutes into the opera, the audience breaks into applause, and one instinctively knows the reason. Little if anything can be said about, or added to, the legend that is Monserrat Caballé including all the criticisms levied against the Spanish soprano: lack of acting ability, abuse of pianissimo and the ever-disappointing cancellations. Yet upon playing this CD, one cannot help but go back in time, re-live the evening, and marvel at the outstanding performance, the magnificent instrument, the spellbinding moments, the ease of delivery whether singing endless high notes that float to the rafters, effective chest notes, parlando, or the exclamation of surprise, fear, and pain. Such is the stuff of legends.
The role of Elisabetta, the real “lead” character in the opera, is at the same time poignant, ruthless, helpless, vengeful, pitiful, as well as physically and emotionally demanding—and Caballé does not disappoint. She handles the intricacies of the music—the music for Elisabetta is peppered with with an inordinate amount of high notes, a two octave span, and impressive forte passages in the ensembles and individual arias—as easily as though she were singing a lullaby. This is no second rate Bette Davis imitation as the recent NYCO and Covent Garden productions. Caballé easily conveys the contradicting emotions of a woman trapped by her own ambitions, her misplaced sense of self, restricted by her insecurities, misguided by her hatred, and always living in the fantasy of her memories and what might have been. This Elisabetta is human and vulnerable, secure, regal, and commands the stage even when she is not present !
“Ah! Ritorna qual ti spero...Vieni, vieni t’affretta” is sung with youthful abandon; its childlike anxiety dotted with high notes and in sharp contrast to the preceding “L’amor suo mi fè beata” in which the soprano effectively matches the underlying sadness of the string instruments. Caballé imbues “Vivi ingrato” with pathos, emotion and poignancy the real Virgin Queen probably never experienced.
In the immediate scene “Quel sangue versato” and “Quel palco di sangue rosseggia” upon learning of Sara’s affair with Devereaux and Nottingham’s blockage of the delivery of the ring, Caballé’s tone rapidly turns to ice, with carefully placed forte, clipping words and flawlessly switching registers to expose chest notes whose vengeful tone cannot be denied..
After the customary outburst of applause at the end of a great performance, one member of the audience summed this opera best, “Molto bene ....”
This Myto recording of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux includes excerpts from the “Dress Rehearsal” which makes one wish that performance had been released, as well.
Donizetti has always had his share of detractors: Bellini conspired against him, William Ashbrook, in his biography of the composer refers to Vivi Ingrato as “... the wildly overdrawn final scene for Queen Elisabeth,”8 and Chorley, never a Donizetti fan, delighted in saying that by 1841 in England “only a song and a duet from Roberto Devereux are remembered.”9 Not a bad way to be remembered.
Devereux was well received when it premiered. Writing to a friend, Donizetti said of the first performance, “ ... I gave my opera the day before yesterday at the S. Carlo; it is not for me to tell you now how it went. I am more modest than a whore; therefore I should blush. But it went very, very well. They also called out the poet....”10 To Angelo Lodi Donizetti wrote, “I composed Il Conte di Essex and gave it two days ago at the San Carlo, and the results could not have been more flattering.” 11
It is difficult to understand the reasons for the neglect of this opera and the many others that have suffered the same fate, but in the words of Paul Henry Lang, “I must return again and again to the warning that this music is falsified by merely adequate singing. Moreover, it requires singers with that undefinable animalism that will carry them through the emotional situations, which cannot be resolved intellectually because this music is addressed not to our intelligence but to our sensibilities. The singers must be adept at those little inflections and accents that musical notation cannot indicate, and they must be able to scale the heights unflinchingly, effortlessly, and with secure footing.”12
Mr. Lang would have approved of the cast in this recording.
Daniel Pardo © 2006
Metropolitan Opera Archives
The Complete Opera Book
© 1935 Gustave Kobbé
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, N.Y.
© 1965 William Ashbrook
Cassell & Company Ltd.
© 1963 Herbert Weinstock
The Experience of Opera
Paul Henry Lang
© 1971 W. W. Norton Company
Thirty Years’ Musical Recollections
Henry F. Chorley
Edited by Ernest Newman
© 1926 Alfred A. Knopf
London, New York
1 Kobbé, 1935, p.308.
2 Donizetti was a prolific composer and his talent extended beyond the seventy known works for the operatic stage. He left two oratorios, twenty eight cantatas, five hymns, several masses and many religious works. In addition, he wrote instrumental music for orchestra, chamber and piano music, over two hundred songs, a number of miscellaneous works for the voice and sixteen unfinished or unwritten operas. Donizetti also left many sketches and drafts for unclassified works which never came to fruition.
3 Mistakenly referred to as the “Tudor Trilogy,” a term popularized in the second half of the Twentieth Century, Donizetti wrote four operas with a Tudor queen as the inspiration: Elisabetta al Castello di Kennilworth(1829, Queen Elizabeth I), Anna Bolena (1830, Queen Anne Boleyn), Maria Stuarda (1835, England’s Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and Roberto Devereux (1837, Queen Elizabeth I). In addition, Donizetti wrote three other operas with an English Queen as the central character or moving force behind the story: Alfredo il Grande (1823, Queen Ealhswinth, “Amalia” in the opera), Rosmunda d’Inghilterra (1834, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaqine and England), and L’Assedio di Calais (1836, Queen Isabella).
4 Leyla Gencer shares with Montserrat Caballé the distinction of having the most revivals of neglected works associated with their names.
5 There have always been “revivals” of unknown operas, but by far the greatest period has been that of the second half of the Twentieth Century. In the last forty-five years when the public has benefitted from the performances of all of Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti, Handel, Bellini and many of Meyerbeer, Gounod, Halevy, Pacini, Mercadante, Piccini, etc.
6 Mercadante’s Il conte d’Essex premiered at La Scala, Milan on March 10, 1833.
7 Bohème would be Raimondi’s vehicle for his sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera on September 29, 1965. Mirella Freni would partner him as she had in Milan and Vienna, as well as in the Karajan/Zeffirelli film.
8 Ashbrook, 1965, p. 447.
9 Chorley, 1926, p. 129
10 Ashbrook, 1965, p. 210.
11 Weinstock, 1963, p. 130
12 Lang, 1971, p. 128.